Render unto Caesar

 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.  And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.

 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?  But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?  Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.  And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?  They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.  When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Matthew 22:15-22

Many claim that in this passage Jesus lays down an important principle about the nature or limits of political authority, or about the proper relations between Church and state.  The Whig Lord Acton is not atypical:

But when Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of Freedom. For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it. To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be an aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority, gave to Liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome, before the knowledge of the Truth that makes us free.

Acton and others claim that Christ has here imposed limits on the state, either through the conscience of individuals or the a separate corporation, the Church.  Of course, Acton exaggerates the newness of such limits.  That an individual may be bound in conscience by divine commands not to follow an order of the state was certainly known to Sophocles.  And the state was already as sacred as pagandom could make it.  However, my reservations about such an interpretation come from the biblical text itself.  It is simply not clear that Jesus’ injunction about God and Caesar necessarily means all that people take it to mean.

The “rendering” law supposedly puts clear limits on state authority, but Christians in all kinds of political arrangements will understand this law very differently.  Note first that Jesus didn’t even answer the question put to Him, since what is Caesar’s is precisely the point in dispute.  If some Zealot thought that Rome was an illigitimae occupying power, and the Israelites owe them nothing but rebellion, Jesus has said nothing to gainsay this.  All he said is that Caesar should be given his due, whatever that happens to be.

Nor does Christ say here that the rights of God trump the rights of the state, assuming the two can conflict–although I’m pretty sure that He believes this.  He hasn’t even necessarily said that the rights of God and the rights of the state are distinct.  In fact, we know they are sometimes not, because political authority comes from God (as St. Paul says), and so any legitimate act of rendering to Caesar is ipso facto an act of rendering to God.  Note that Jesus says “and”, not “but”, as if the two renderings are complementary, rather than conflicting things.

Suppose there were a Christian theocratic state, with ecclesiastical and political power completely fused, as people (wrongly) say about Byzantium.  Surely this at least would violate the limits that Acton sees in Christ’s words?  In fact, a citizen of this state wouldn’t necessarily see it so.  He would read the passage as follows:  “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and in so doing you will render unto God the things that are God’s.”  I see no textual reason to regard this as a misreading.

The “rendering” law has seemed to mean different things in different historical contexts.  In the Middle Ages, after the papal revolution, it would naturally seem to mean something like “obey both temporal and ecclesiastical authorities in their respective zones of jurisdiction”.  In the totalitarian nightmares of the twentieth century, Christians probably thought it to mean “obey the state when what it asks is consistent with natural law, but stand firm on conscience when it asks you to violate God’s laws”.  In Anglo-Saxon liberal states, it tends to be interpreted as “I must obey the state as a public duty, but as a private person my conscience is also bound by the dictates of my religion.”

All of these readings seem reasonable to me (although I would quibble with the assumptions behind the last one), and I imagine there are saints who have ascended to heaven practicing each one.  What this means is that Jesus has not layed down any kind of blueprint for how Church and state are supposed to be related to each other, nor where the boundary of state authority should be.  It certainly is not a divine command for the Whiggish system.  Given a particular political context, though, it clarifies what justice demands of subjects and gives these demands divine sanction.

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